The third time that I floated the Rio Grande River through Boquillas Canyon, things went more smoothly. Since that was my first time to lead an actual group into the backcountry, that seemingly simple fact was especially good. There were twelve of us on that particular trip, paddling two per aluminum canoe. We made the 33-mile excursion down the Rio Grande on the east side of Big Bend National Park over three days, with two nights spent camping out along the way, only one simple “getting knocked out of the canoe” situation, and a straightforward vehicle shuttle at the end. Mostly, all we did was to go with the flow, gaze out at the mighty Sierra del Carmen mountains rising above us off to the southeast in Mexico, and ponder the magnificence and complexities of the humongous cliff walls which engulfed us much of the time.
Things hadn’t been that way on my first two trips. It wasn’t that the river, spectacular canyon walls, and the looming bluish massif of the Sierra del Carmen were not there on those trips, it’s just that there’d been other things to think about.
I went there the first time with Coulter, a guy that I’d gone to junior high and high school with, just after our freshmen years in college. We put in our “cost less than $100” inflatable rubber raft near the small Mexican village of Boquillas, a few miles upriver of the actual canyon. Leading up to the trip we’d wasted little time reading guide books and were not concerned by the fact that civilization, as we knew it pretty much ended at the town of Boquillas. For whatever reason, we were confident that we’d planned it all meticulously, although that was not actually the case. We were, however, prepared for uncertainty— which ended up being our saving grace.
There were a couple of things that we did know about our river trip as we pushed the raft off from the riverbank into the lazy current. First, was that we were headed into one of the three big canyons (Santa Elena, Mariscal, and Boquillas) along that section of the Rio Grande, as it flows through Big Bend National Park. And second, was that there were no big rapids for us to worry about. The latter was especially important since neither of us had much in the way of river or whitewater experience, other than what we’d garnered during our boyhoods as we occasionally navigated the muddy creeks of north-central Texas.
Once out in the water, the current soon grabbed us and swept us past the point of no return. It was a mysterious and magical realm that we entered as monstrous rocks and cliffs suddenly rose both to our right and left. At that point, we realized that there was no more Mexico or USA. No Big Bend rangers, no parents, and no one to ask. There was only the water, over 100 miles of a mostly wild river, and mountains without people in our new world.
We started in the afternoon and planned to go only a couple of hours into the canyon before finding a place to pitch our tent for the first night. We somehow knew enough to paddle more or less together and had placed our fully loaded frame backpacks in the middle of the boat. We were amazed by how much weight the raft held and initially, at least, were pleased by how well it was all working out- and for less than $100.
We had to do little in the way of paddling to move as fast as we dared. Mostly, we just kept the front of the raft pointed downstream and let the river do the rest. By 5 pm, we felt the south breeze, which up until that point had mostly been at our backs, begin to shift more to the east and change from a gentle breeze into a stiff one. The river made a sweeping turn to our left, and as we emerged into yet another straightaway, the wind change became profound, and we were suddenly hit almost head-on by a brutal and sand-filled gale that almost completely stopped our forward progress.
Both of us dug our paddles deeply into the water and pulled for all we were worth in a drastic attempt to keep moving forward. After paddling for five minutes, we gauged our progress relative to an old tree trunk over on the shore and noted that at that point at least we’d not been blown upstream. If only we had a canoe, I thought, maybe we’d actually be going downstream.
By a stroke of luck, a large sand bar created the US side of the river right where we were, and amidst all of the paddling struggle, we were able to glance over and see some camping possibilities. We’d planned to go further before stopping for the night and were hoping to find a pleasant, grass covered flat spot for pitching our dome tent, but at that particular moment we opted to go for whatever we could get, and it wasn’t a flat, grassy spot.
Thankfully, we were close to the shore and after a few minutes of complex paddling got ourselves close enough to the riverbank for Coulter to jump out and drag us ashore. He held onto the bow line that we’d thankfully tied onto the front of the boat and pulled the whole rig, with me attached, ashore. Our first instinct was to use the raft as a combination windbreak and shelter but soon realized that it caught too much wind for that and then just focused on the need to securely anchor it to the ground to keep it from blowing away. I will say, that losing your boat out where we were, would suck, although we didn’t spend much time thinking about that while amid the “camp set up in the wind” chaos.
After some struggle, we were able to tie the raft down to the big log that we’d used to check our progress. Once that was done, we began looking for a good place to set up the tent. We recognized that we were quickly becoming overwhelmed by the wind and needed to get out of it, so became even less picky regarding where to set it up. We located a spot that was more or less level, although not particularly protected, pulled the 3-person tent out, and went about the process of fighting the wind to put it up.
What should’ve taken only a few minutes took considerably more, but we eventually did get it set up and almost miraculously with the door facing away from the wind. As soon as it was ready to go, we climbed in and zipped ourselves inside. Even though we could hear the wind pounding outside, it was calm and there was no sand blowing inside, and so- for that moment, all was good.
Eventually, the wind subsided to the point where we could go outside and cook supper, although we didn’t do that and opted for the no-cook meal that we’d brought along for emergency use. As it turns out, a strong wind was not something I’d even considered, as I did whatever planning I did before the trip. And so, while eating a mix of crackers, cheese, and Oreos, I speculated about such things as what we would do about supper if the wind was like that every day.
After the wind incident, the rest of the trip went flawlessly. A couple of days later we pulled the raft up onto the bank, just under the bridge at La Linda, and shuttled from there back into the park to get my pickup. We returned to the park and then a few days later, the two of us floated the middle of the three Big Bend canyons, Mariscal. Interestingly, on that short trip add-on, we performed something of a river rescue in the middle of the canyon. A group of four college guys had decided to float through it on a sailboat bottom and had issues negotiating the river feature known as the “Tight Squeeze.” We came upon them just as they were all being launched from their floating plank into the water just ahead of us. We ultimately pulled them all out of the river and into our raft and then dropped them safely off onto the shore. Afterward, as we drifted back out into the current, we could hear them talking about what they were going to do next time. That was the last venture out onto the water for the “under $100 raft,” but we were pleased by how well it’d performed during it’s short, but eventful life.
So, that brings us to the next trip, which was my second. Several years after the wind trip and a few months before my first trip as a group leader, I did it with an old friend, whom I’ll call Busby. Our plan was to do it as something of a dress rehearsal for the trip that we’d be leading a group of teenagers on, later that year. Again, it would’ve made sense to have many of the details worked out before doing the exploratory excursion, but since that was what this particular trip was all about we planned to work through those as things progressed. I will say that we were at least doing it in the late spring when the water and weather were relatively warm. We also had a bombproof aluminum canoe with us that didn’t leak, and we knew where our starting point was going to be. Other details, such as those related to the required shuttle back to our vehicle from the take-out point were a bit more ambiguous.
Things started off like clockwork. We made the six-hour drive to the park and our put-in location at Rio Grande Village as scheduled, and arrived in the late afternoon and had plenty of time to set up our tent in the campground and have supper before dark. We were fully energized and ready to go when we carried the canoe over to the water’s edge the next morning. With the boat in a shallow and calm backwater, we loaded our packs into the middle and then climbed in. We just sat on the bow and stern seats, given the relatively calm nature of the water, and then eased out into the current.
The first few miles from Rio Grande Village, past Boquillas Crossing, and on into the canyon is mellow. The terrain is relatively flat, with only the mountains off in the distance creating any sort of relief. The warm sun, predictable flow, and the fact that I’d done it before began conspiring early on to relax me. The canyon walls rose up sporadically and then magnificently as we entered the canyon. To better take it all in, I put my paddle down and laid back. Studying the seemingly perfectly orchestrated chaos of the rock overwhelmed my senses. River Cane grew in scattered and unlikely spots in the rocks where cracks and creases had been filled with bits of sand and dirt and seemed to spring up wherever the river made a turn. Two Crows soared near the top of the massive rock wall of the canyon, which in places rose directly out of the water and seemed to extend up into the sky. With the warm sun conspiring with the calm water, I decided to close my eyes for just a moment and take a quick nap. That, it turns out, was a poorly thought out thing to do.
While I’d been conscious and controlling my end of the boat, everything had gone well. But apparently, something changed once I drifted off into relaxed slumber. Bad timing, I suppose. Something, perhaps a new sound, sudden shift, or dramatic change in speed, woke me abruptly and sent me springing into action, although a bit behind the curve. Busby was in the bow and doing what he could to keep us pointed downstream as we entered into a section of somewhat swifter current. He was struggling to keep us from turning broadside into the current, which often leads a canoe to swamp or turn over.
I grabbed for my paddle, but a couple of miscues in my attempts to do so delayed my action. Within a few seconds, I was able to slide back down onto the seat and finally got my paddle into the water. But all of that happened just as the bow of the canoe veered abruptly to the left sending us perpendicular to the current, turning the boat over, and dumping us into the river.
While our situation was not all that good, I could see that at least the rapid that had created the problem was actually more of a riffle and soon disappeared. I noted that we were actually in the middle of a big and slow-moving pool, that there was a big sandbar to our north where we could get out and reorganize ourselves, and that our backpacks were still closed-up and floating nearby. Things could’ve been worse, but they weren’t.
There was no sort of strict schedule, so we grabbed the canoe and our packs and dragged them, along with ourselves, up onto the beach and began leisurely reorganizing and drying things out. Everything was mostly repacked and back to normal within about an hour. At that point, while Busby secured it, I loaded the packs up into the canoe. We’d learned an easy lesson during our swamping situation and on the second time around, we tied things down better, realizing the problems that could potentially develop if one or both of the packs floated away. Once ready, we each carefully climbed in and took our positions, back-paddled out into the current, and attentively headed on downstream. We were on the road again, so to speak.
We spent three days floating through the canyon-from Rio Grande Village to the take-out at La Linda. Other than the swamping incident, it was a leisurely and spectacular float. We camped two times along the way, and it appeared that it would be an ideal trip for the type of group that we’d have with us later in the year.
We were pleased with how seamlessly things were going as we floated out of the canyon and entered into the homestretch. I began to think ahead to the end of our trip and the various logistics involved with taking the canoe out of the water, going back the hundred or so miles to Rio Grande Village to get my Scout, and then driving it back to get us and gear. It was at about that time that I realized that during the planning phase of the outing, I’d forgotten about that part.
About an hour before reaching La Linda, we conveniently floated upon a group of two canoes and four people, who mentioned that they were headed to La Linda, just like us. I inquired about their shuttle plans, and they answered that they had a Suburban parked near the crossing at the Stillwell Store (which was close to La Linda and on the US side) and would be taking it back to Rio Grande Village where they’d left another vehicle. I did the math and realized that there was room for me in the Suburban and that I could ride back with them to get the truck. I was concerned about leaving the canoe and backpacks while doing the shuttle but figured Busby could stay and guard them, while I made the round trip.
And so, after some chit chat, I asked if they’d give me a ride back to Rio Grande Village, and they agreed. Problem solved, at least for me. We floated on past the savior group, with them agreeing to meet up with us on the US side under the La Linda bridge. Within a few minutes, their two canoes disappeared behind us. Busby and I eventually floated on down to the bridge, eased over to the shore, and landed.
It’s complicated just why there’s a bridge at that spot, to begin with. It was built, and built well, in the early ’60s to provide access between the US and a fluorspar mine on the Mexican side. By the time we were there, which was the late 70’s, something of a real town was developing surrounding the mine and on the Mexican side. There was never much of anything on the US side other than miles of open desert.
The mine was in full operational mode as we dragged the canoe up onto the shore. We didn’t want to just leave it out in the open for the whole world to see, but there was no sort of structure or vegetation of any size to hide it behind. So, we just did the best we could and carried it up the bank a hundred feet or so and stuck both it and our backpacks behind a clump of not so big bushes. Just as we were finishing up with that, the two boats of our shuttle friends arrived. Being in something of a desperate, thankful, and conciliatory situation we headed straight back down to the river’s edge and helped them ferry boats and equipment up to the road, where we loaded both of their canoes and the various associated gear into and onto their Suburban.
So, back to our own things. We’d made the decision not to invite thievery by making our stuff obvious, so had decided to leave it all hidden and only part of the way up from the river to the highway. We planned to haul it up the rest of the way, once I got back. It was mid-afternoon by the time the Suburban was loaded, and we were ready to leave. I told Busby that I’d be back in four hours or so, which meant that if all went well, I’d be back before sunset. And then, we left.
Things did go well with the shuttle, although by the time I got back to La Linda it was after dark. The round trip had taken a bit longer than anticipated. As I drove up, there was no apparent sign of Busby. But once I stopped, got out, and yelled for him, he emerged from the thicket that he was hiding in. We hauled the boat and packs up to the road, loaded the Scout, and by early evening were turned around and driving toward the small Texas town of Marathon and on our way home. I looked at the fuel gauge and was comforted to note that we had more than enough gas to get that far, assuming that all went as planned.